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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Church is Like A ...

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Be grateful for whoever comes
Because each has been sent as a guide.”

These words by the Persian poet Rumi were recorded by the band Coldplay. The poem compares his life to a guesthouse where different experiences come to stay for a while. All need to be welcomed, because all have something to teach. 

This is an excellent example of an analogy. 

Analogies are verbal or visual comparisons. 

“All the world’s a stage.” (Shakespeare)
"My love is like a red, red rose." (Burns)
“Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Forrest Gump)

Analogies are powerful tools for learning and imagining. Like this visual analogy comparing cigarettes to a shotgun.
Analogies are becoming increasingly important in the church. When things are clear and straightforward and everyone understands what they mean, you don’t need analogies so much. But in times like these, when Christian faith and the place of the church in society is becoming less clear, analogies can be really helpful.

Some common examples – “The church is a family.” “The church is a business.” In a recent blog post, I compared the church to an airport.

The important thing about analogies, however, is knowing that they have their limits. You can only push them so far. 

We can learn something about the church by comparing it to a family, or a business, or an airport. But we get into trouble if we forget that in certain important respects, the church is not like a family, a business, or an airport.

In my last two posts, I drew analogies from the world of marketing. The demise of Sam the Record Man can teach us that, while our core message stays the same, the way we deliver it needs to change. The recent success of A & W can teach us the importance of focusing on the essentials.

Analogies between the church and marketing can be helpful when it comes to the question of How? How do we communicate? How do we connect?

But those analogies can break down when it comes to another question -- Why?
Why does the church exist? 

Businesses exist to sell products to consumers. But the church exists – well, why does the church exist? To worship God? To teach people to love God and love their neighbour? To continue the work of Jesus in the world? All of the above?

Marketing analogies aren’t helpful if they make us think of people primarily as customers to be sold something. All too often, that’s how churches do think. What “product” can we come up with that will attract people to come in and part with their time and their money? How can we stop losing “market share” to the mega-church down the street, or the shopping mall?

Peter Drucker
The great management guru Peter Drucker said that the difference between a for-profit business and an organization like a church is in the nature of their product. The product of the business is a good or service that they sell to a customer. 

The church’s product is people. What churches “produce,” Drucker says, is transformed individuals. They are the people who are changed, equipped and inspired to live out the Good News in their daily lives.

Used properly, analogies can deepen our understanding and awaken our imaginations. Just remember that any analogy can only be pushed so far.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lessons From The Great Root Bear

On the way home from the airport after a recent vacation, my wife and I stopped at a brand –new, just-opened A & W.

While many fast food chains have seen their business plateau, A & W is going through a resurgence.

This surprises me. A & W always struck me as decidedly second-tier in the fast food world. The ones I was familiar with tended to be a little shabby, the staff disorganized and the food expensive. Their mascot was a brown and orange-clad, pear-shaped bear who waddled along to a goofy tune played on the tuba. A bit corny and

So what's gotten into A & W?

It’s simple, really. First, they identified one thing that people really care about – food safety and quality. And second, they started to deliver that one thing simply, clearly and consistently.

A & W recognized that people are willing to pay more for food they trust. They committed to serving only drug- and hormone-free meat. And then they communicated that message over and over and over again.

A & W did not try to become something other than what they were – a place to get a hamburger. And while other chains expanded their menus, A & W stuck to relatively limited range of choices.

But they focused single-mindedly on one thing -- the quality of their meat.
And it seems to have worked. A & W plans to open 250 new stores across Canada over the next few years.

I’ve noticed a few other changes as well. The A & W I recently visited had a little electronic keypad near the door with a customer satisfaction survey that has four questions and can be completed in 5 seconds. The results of that day’s surveys were visibly displayed on screens at the order counter.

Also a beautifully-produced video about their food sources – a family-owned ranch in Alberta, an environmentally-sustainable greenhouse in California -- was running on a loop in the restaurant area.

A & W also has relatively low franchise fees and many of their new franchisees are millennials in their 20s and early 30s. That is the age group that consumes the most fast food, and younger owners can be expected to be attuned to their needs.

So, what are the takeaways (so to speak) for the church?

A couple of words of caution: I’m not making any judgments about whether eating a Teenburger is actually any better for you than eating a Big Mac, or just a marketing ploy. And, building a Christian community and selling burgers aren’t the same thing. We need to be clear about what A &W can and can’t teach us.

But I think there are a couple of lessons many congregations could learn here.

First, find something that people really care about that you can respond to. And second, commit to doing that one thing consistently well.

The experience of A & W shows that there is more than one way to succeed. The prevailing wisdom today says that people demand choice and churches need to get with the program and offer people more and more options in worship, programming, music, etc. But A & W is succeeding not by getting more diverse but by getting more focused on one thing that really matters to people. I observe congregations trying to do too much and ending up not doing anything particularly well. In these times of diminishing resources, we need to learn how to focus. 
It would be better to find one or two things that make a real difference to people’s lives, commit to doing those things consistently and well, and let people know that’s what you’re good at, over and over and over again. Whether it’s hospitality, prayer practices, young families, seniors, creative worship, ministry to a particular population, or one specific aspect of any of these things, find those one or two areas in which you are able to excel and make those your priority.

And let people know about it in any way you can.

What are those one or two things at your church?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lessons from Sam the Record Man

Sam the Record Man, Toronto
When I was a teenager, one of my very favorite things to do was to make a pilgrimage a couple of times a year to 347 Yonge Street in Toronto – the home of Sam the Record Man.

For a kid who loved music, Sam’s was like dying and going to heaven. Room upon endless room filled with every record you could imagine – and many you could not imagine even existed until you found them in the bins at Sam’s. I’d go with my Christmas money, or my savings from part time jobs and browse for hours, until I’d settled on the two or three precious LPs I could afford to buy.

Once I left a brand new record in the back window of the car where it melted into a warped, gooey mess. I was so devastated by my loss that I dissolved into tears.

I remember the feeling of sadness and loss when Sam’s flagship store closed in 2007. Precious memories. The end of an era.

Of course, the demise of Sam’s didn’t mean I could no longer get music. In fact, quite the opposite. Retail record stores failed not because people lost interest in music, but because there were far easier and cheaper ways to access it.

Now, I pay $10 a month for a streaming service that gives me access to more music than I
will ever be able to listen to, on my cell phone, at the click of a button.

Sam’s was a delivery vehicle. It was a means to an end. When better means came along, there was no need for Sam’s.

Sam the Record Man was part of the same vanishing world as the church I grew up in – Lincoln Avenue United in Cambridge. That church played an even bigger role in my life than Sam’s, and when it closed in 2002, the feeling of loss was the similar, but more powerful.

But both Sam’s and that church closed for the same reason. People were no longer coming.
And I hear the same question asked over and over again in our churches today: “Why? Why aren’t people coming? Why aren’t they interested in anymore?”

I’m convinced that’s the wrong question. Or, at least, it’s not the first question. Just like the closing of  Sam the Record Man didn’t mean people had lost interest in music, so the closing of our churches doesn’t necessarily mean people have lost interest in what churches claim to offer – spiritual nourishment, guidance, friendship, prayer, community, God. People, we’re told, are as spiritually hungry as they have ever been. It’s just that we keep offering it in a format that no longer works. Oh, it still works for some of us, which is why we still have churches. But fewer and fewer people are willing to travel to a fixed location at one fixed time in the week to satisfy their search for God.

Most of our churches follow a script that hasn’t really changed much since the 1950s: a Sunday morning worship service, plus midweek groups and activities, all in the church building. That’s the equivalent of telling people that, if they want music, they have to drive to a record store to get it. It’s preserving the form and neglecting the content.

Now, I want to be careful. I don’t want to suggest that the church should become like Amazon – one click shopping in the privacy of your home. And I don’t want to suggest that something precious hasn’t been lost in the age of instant connection and information. Downloading an album from Apple Music is not the same experience as a trip to Sam’s.

The point is that there are changes happening that are way bigger than we are, and there is no way for us to turn them back.

The music industry to turn the clock back. They tried to resist the shift from hard recordings on CDs to music downloaded from the internet. They even managed to close down the original file-sharing website, Napster, after a costly court battle. But they couldn’t resist the tide of change. Ironically, by resisting rather than seeking ways to work with new formats and technologies, they hurt their own cause.

If churches want to connect with people in new ways, they need to learn about the ways in which people, especially young people, connect. And they need to think long and hard about the new tools, the new “delivery systems” that might bring the Good News to people in fresh ways.

Otherwise, Sam’s fate will be our own. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Capitalizing on Assets

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has an interesting theory about the difference
Hernando de Soto
between rich and poor countries. It’s not that poorer countries lack assets. It’s that they lack capital.

An asset is something you possess. Even very poor countries, de Soto argues, have a wealth of assets. What they don’t have are the mechanisms to turn their assets into capital – to unlock the potential of those assets to generate greater wealth.

For example, a house is an asset. It provides protection from elements, a place to sleep at night, prepare meals, store your belongings and raise a family. If your house is near other houses, it provides you with a place in the community.

But if that house is a corrugated metal shack in an illegal squatter settlement on the edges of mega city, it will never be anything more than a roof to keep the rain out. That asset is inert. 

On the other hand, if you have legal title to that house, it can do many things in addition to providing shelter. It can be used as collateral to borrow money in order to finance an education, start a business, or boost the economy. It is an identifiable address that gives its owner access to a wide range of public services, It generates taxes that support everything from reliable utilities to police protection – all the things that make communities safe and liveable. That asset becomes a generator of greater wealth and opportunity.

Poor countries may be rich in assets, but they lack the financial mechanisms and legal system to turn those assets into wealth-generating capital.

At least that’s de Soto’s theory. And I’m not an economist, so I can’t judge how true it is.
However, de Soto’s ideas made me think of an intriguing parallel in the area, not of economic capital, but of “social capital.” Social capital refers to the connections between people that make human communities possible.

Churches are rich in social capital. They have a wealth of interpersonal connections. And they are rich in assets – far richer than they may realize. But often, churches don’t know how to capitalize on those assets to generate growth and fruitfulness. Their assets aren’t being used to their fullest potential.

Take, for example, that basic church asset -- friendliness. I don’t know of a church whose members don’t think of themselves as friendly. And that is a vital asset. After all, who wants to go to an unfriendly church?

Friendliness can be a precious commodity in today’s culture of loneliness. And it’s often our smaller churches who have this asset in the greatest abundance.

But many churches don’t know how to get the most out of their innate capacity for friendliness. They lack the means of sharing that asset with people outside their own circle, of leveraging that asset to generate a greater wealth of meaningful relationships. With visitors or with people outside the church, they don’t know how to move from a polite greeting, to an open conversation, to significant relationships – to move, in other words, from “friendliness” to “friendship.”

This problem begins with the question of purpose. We have been conditioned over generations to think that the end game is how to attract people into the church – and that the only really valid measure of success is how many show up on Sunday morning. Many a youth ministry or outreach project has been labelled a failure because it doesn’t increase worship attendance.

Congregational assets may be producing in ways that we don’t count because we aren’t looking for them. We don’t see the many ways in which people experience hope, healing and the presence of God through contact with Christians because those people don’t follow the expected path to church involvement.

A critical task for churches these days is to take stock of their assets – not just buildings and trust funds, but the capacity of their people to represent Jesus to those to who do not yet know him.

But a second and equally critical task is to come up with simple, practical, effective ways of sharing those assets with others so that Christ’s ministry is extended. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From Judgment to Curiosity

This is my granddaughter Nina. Nina is two-and-half. 

The very best thing about being a grandparent is that you get to relive the amazing journey through childhood, without being distracted by exhaustion or overburdened with responsibility.

And what fascinating creatures two-year-olds are!

How does she do that without throwing her back out?”

“How does she fall down like that and not break something?”

“How does she SLEEP like that!?”

What has really captured me about all my grandchildren, though, is their limitless curiosity.

What’s THAT SOUND?” “That’s the furnace coming on, Nina.”

“What’s THAT THING?” “That’s a dust bunny, Nina.”

"What's Grandma DOING?"  "She's going to the washroom, Nina." 

Everything, from a candle snuffer to a cracker crumb creates a moment of joyous discovery.
That capacity for curiosity seems to diminish, though, with age. It’s easy, over time, to acquire a “Been there done that” attitude. We live near Niagara Falls. I’m always taken aback at how awestruck visitors are when they see the Falls for the first time. I shouldn’t be. The Falls are amazing. But for locals, it’s kind of ho hum.

Betty Pries is a well-known mediator and conflict management specialist who is known to many churches in Waterloo Presbytery. I heard Betty say something at a workshop that really stuck with me.

She said that, in high stress or conflicted situations, we should strive to “move from judgment to curiosity.”

Moving from judgment to curiosity. 

Judgment is essential. It’s one of the key components of a moral life. Every time we choose right over wrong, or better over worse, we exercise judgment.

But judgment can harden into a shell that locks us and others into one place, ridgid and immovable. Judgment can make us lazy. Rather than making the effort to truly know and understand someone, we make a snap judgment. “Oh, she’s (fill in the blanks.) What do you expect?” We make snap judgments that close down our sense of curiosity about the other, and the potential for creating a relationship.

Curiosity comes naturally to Nina. I need to work at it. We need to work to maintain that sense of curiosity about one another:

“I wonder what he meant by that?”

“I wonder what made her react in that way?”

“I wonder what’s going on in his life right now?”

“I wonder what it would be like to be in her place?”

Curiosity can move us past the fixed certainties of judgment to a place of openness and wonder.

Christians have spent two thousand years pondering the meaning of Jesus’ cryptic saying that his followers must “become like little children.” Jesus’ words could mean many things, but one thing I believe they mean is that we need to continue cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world around us, and the people who cross our paths. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Are Not Alone

Recently, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, said that the greatest public health crisis in America is not cancer or heart disease. It’s social isolation. Loneliness.

The British journalist George Monbiot has written that we live in an “Age of Loneliness.” Loneliness has reached “epidemic” proportions, particularly among the elderly and increasingly among the young.

Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
If this is true – and I believe it is – then it presents churches with a massive untapped opportunity. After all, After all, churches exist to sustain relationships. We worship a relational God. On Sundays we affirm that “We are not alone; we live in God’s world.” And many churches do an amazing job of breaking down the walls of loneliness and providing community for many people.

I’ve been pondering what it would look like for a church to make overcoming loneliness and isolation a priority.  I don’t have any definitive answers, but I do have a few intuitions.
Beyond Friendliness
A church that was serious about dealing with loneliness would have to strive for more than superficial friendliness. Most people would describe their churches as “friendly.” And for those who are part of the family circle, they are. What we need to realize, though, is that the same friendliness that makes insiders feel connected can be a barrier to someone who is socially isolated.

Isolated people are often hard to see. The very factors that make them isolated mean that they aren’t likely to turn up at church or at a potluck supper. Because they are isolated, they don’t have the supportive networks of relationships, or the ability to develop them on their own.
Reaching out to those who are socially isolated will require intentionally seeing with different eyes and learning different skills.

Persons, not Programs
A common default in churches is to look for a need and then plan a program to meet that
need. It’s easier to organize a project or event than it is to develop long-term relationships.
But that is precisely what socially isolated people are lacking. If we want to be serious about addressing loneliness, we need to invest in the capacity of our people to form and sustain relationships outside their current circle of comfort. We need to learn how to meet people where they are, in their place of safety. And, we need to measure results and success in different ways.

Commitment over time
One common statement I hear is that people today are not willing to make long-term commitments. “Give me a job to do and clear timeline and I’ll do it,” they say.
But loneliness is not a time-limited condition. A church that was serious about responding to loneliness would have to motivate people to invest long-term in the well-being of another person.

As our financial and volunteer resources shrink, churches still have a wealth of untapped relational potential that could make a difference in the lives of people who are lonely and isolated.
I may sound like I know what I’m talking about here. I don’t, really. My guess, though, is that there are all kinds of people in all kinds of churches who are really skilled at connecting with people in a way that breaks down the barriers of isolation and loneliness.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts and experiences about how churches might live faithfully in the Age of Loneliness.

Please post a comment, or contact me

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Church is Like an Airport

Buildings are so integral to the church that it’s hard for us to think of the church apart from them. As much as we like to say that “the church is people,” we’re still pretty tied to our
buildings. When someone says “That’s my church,” they don’t usually mean a group of people, they usually mean “The churchy looking structure on the corner.” And sadly, the closure of a church building usually means the end of the congregation that meets in it.

Our attitude to our buildings influences our understanding of the church, and vice versa. For the first centuries of Christianity, there were no church buildings. Churches met in the homes of wealthy members, and the main image of the church was the household, the oikos, or extended family.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church adopted the basilica, or imperial court house, as the model for its buildings. These buildings conveyed the pomp and circumstance of the newly powerful church.

In the Middle Ages, soaring Gothic cathedrals expressed the soul’s heavenward ascent to God.

In the Protestant Reformation, churches were constructed like lecture halls, with the pulpit acting as the teaching podium from which the educated pastor instructed the congregation in scriptural doctrine. 

After World War II, the nuclear family was seen as the foundation not only of society but of the church, and church buildings were constructed to be like homes, with big kitchens, parlours and gathering rooms for all ages.

So buildings aren’t just functional. They also make a deeply theological statement about how we see the church, and perhaps even God.

For much of the 20th century, the church building was seen as a destination. It was the place to which people were attracted by the quality of preaching, music and programs. The life of the church was contained in the building, and people were expected to come in if they wanted to be part of that life. This is still an extraordinarily powerful impulse, especially among those of us who remember that church. It’s very hard to let go of the idea that our main task is to attract people into the building. It’s also an increasingly painful impulse as we find it harder and harder to convince people that the church is an attractive destination.

More recently, we have seen a reaction against buildings: “Let’s get out of our buildings and into the world!” Some advocate selling all of our buildings and giving the money away because all those bricks and mortar are just a millstone around our neck. Our buildings keep us from faithfully following Jesus, they say.

But there is another way to look at buildings. I got this idea from Reggie McNeal in his book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church.  McNeal says that the church ought to be like an airport. Its purpose is not to be the end of people’s journey, but to
help them get somewhere else. The church, he says, is a connector, not a destination.

If we thought of our buildings in those terms, then we would not see the church as being confined to the building. People would come to the building in order to be connected to God and to one another, to be inspired, encouraged, healed, formed, not so they can settle down and stay, but so they can continue their journey.  Most of the church’s life would be lived outside the building, where people live out their faith in their families, their places of work, their neighbourhoods and communities.

If we were to see the church in this way, we would continue to recognize the importance of buildings as gathering places, but we would be under no illusion that the point of being a church was to keep this building open. Or, that our main mission was to get people into the building.  We would be more readily able to let go of them when they become too much to manage and more creative in finding other accommodation. Perhaps it would be a building we share with another congregation, or a rented space, or someone’s home. We would still recognize the need for that meeting place, but we would see whatever building we had as simply a connector to help us get to someplace else.

A building is no more the point of the church than an airport is the point of a trip. But, like airports, buildings can play an essential role in helping us continue our journey of faith.